Hockey Road Trip: Once More Into the Valley of the Sun

12 June 2015

As we head towards the end of the 2014-15 NHL season, I finally have time to recap my final road trip of the 2013-14 season (sorry - I've been VERY busy).  Needless to say, it was a very quick trip to a nearby destination, but it's always fun to escape from the craziness of Los Angeles and spend a weekend in the even-sunnier confines of the greater Phoenix area.

At the end of the last decade (do you call them "the aughts"?), I often found myself visiting Arizona in late February every year.  The purpose?  MLB Spring Training.  Each trip always seemed to coincide with the weekend of the Academy Awards, which was a perfect time to skip town and relax with some baseball.  We would arrive in Arizona soon after the players had first reported to camps, but before they started playing actual games - this meant dealing with smaller crowds of people, which allowed us the opportunity to interact with the players on many occasions.  But the practices only occurred during the day, which left us with little to do in the evenings.  Sports fans that we are, my buddy Dave and I used the nighttime to watch live contests: one year, it was an Arena Football game featuring the very successful Arizona Rattlers, once it was a Phoenix Suns game (in which I got to scratch "see Shaquille O'Neal play in-person" off of my sports bucket list), and on two occasions we saw the Phoenix Coyotes. Arena (as it was known then) is a terrific place to see a hockey game, without a doubt.  The sight lines are terrific, the staff is very friendly, and the food is superb.  In fact, it was only after visiting this arena, as well as Nationwide Arena in Columbus, that I was finally inspired to start my quest of seeing all the other NHL venues - and as it stands right now, these two are still my favorite places.  So why go back now?  Two reasons: my dear friend, Chad - trusty companion throughout my Hockey Road Trips - had yet to see a game there; and more importantly, I had recently reconnected with Estell, an old friend from high school who lived in Arizona, and this was a great opportunity to finally see him again after more than two decades.

It's about a five-hour drive to Phoenix, which is what we always did in the past, but it is a rather boring trip through the Mojave Desert - this time, I settled for the one-hour flight.  The funny part is that after our New York trip, Chad flew back to St. Louis (watching a Blues game while he was there), and then flew directly to Phoenix to meet me at the airport.  Estell met us at the hotel, and we ventured out into the balmy city...


Sometimes it can be hard to describe the feelings you have when seeing a dear friend after such a long time apart.  Growing up as Navy brats in Hawaii, Estell and I were very close - we often walked (or took the bus) to school together through much of junior high and high school.  After school, we played video games for hours on end, listened to the same music, and went to the mall on the weekends.  As is often the case with military families, the dreaded "transfer" splits everyone up, and since this occurred for us in 1992 it was quite difficult to keep track of one another as the years went on.  This is one of the reasons why I love social media, since I was able to find Estell on Facebook, and re-establish our friendship.  Just seeing him show up at the hotel brought back a host of memories, and confirmed how we've both aged quite well (perhaps being single without any children had something to do with that?).  But enough sentimentality - we were all hungry, and we can always reminisce over a meal.

Our first stop was Matt's Big Breakfast - not just a clever name, but a charming little diner with great food.  The laid-back atmosphere gave us the perfect chance to simply relax after our respective trips (while Chad and I took separate flights to Phoenix, Estell had to drive two hours to meet us) and comb through old stories.  For Chad, it proved somewhat revelatory: he and I had met in college, so here was a person that could tell him stories about me from many years before.  Honestly, I thought he would be bored listening to us wax philosophically about the old days, but he actually peppered Estell with questions concerning the validity of stories that I had told him over the years - all of which are true, to the best of my knowledge.

Outside the restaurant, we saw some really cool street art as we were leaving - this was my personal favorite (yes, it looks like something from the liner notes of a TOOL album, but I think it's awesome):

We still had a few hours to kill before the Coyotes game that evening, and then a funny thing happened: while driving aimlessly around the streets of suburban Phoenix, we saw a series of banners advertising a Hollywood Costume exhibit at the nearby Phoenix Art Museum.  After unwinding in the hotel for a brief period (i.e. digesting our "big breakfast"), we decided to visit the museum - it seemed like fate.

Now here's the point where I would normally include a handful of photographs to help describe the interesting exhibit, but unfortunately, photography was not allowed inside.  Instead, I can tell you that it was very impressive - it featured many of the more recognizable wardrobes from film history, as well as several displays that had interviews with the costume designers and film directors themselves.  Chad and I would actually wind up seeing this exhibit again a year later when it came to Los Angeles.  Off to the arena...

The immediate area surrounding Arena is a sight to behold: after all, it IS hockey in the middle of the desert, so one should expect a certain kitschy charm.  There's a movie theater, some chain restaurants, a giant fountain, an upscale hotel - maybe not the most typical pre-game surroundings, but the uniqueness is what I find so fascinating.  The team has made it so that you really feel like you're getting an evening's worth of entertainment, in addition to a hockey game.


Seeing as how it was the second-to-last day of the season, and the Coyotes were already eliminated from playoff contention, I expected a rather dull atmosphere - luckily for us, that was not necessarily the case.  The visiting San Jose Sharks fans, of which there were many and who were all very respectable towards the home fans, helped make for the one of the most cordial games I've ever attended.  Although Chad and I do prefer to sit in the upper deck of the arena, we knew this would be our best chance to get affordable tickets that were close to the ice and so we went for it.  This was our view for the evening:

As anyone who has ever sat in similar seats can tell you, the perspective is drastically different.  I felt so much more in tune with the players on the ice, as I could hear a lot of their discussions with each other and the referees.  I saw the players react as the plays developed in real time, and in the case of one particular goal, I got to see first-hand what a prolific sniper visualizes as he releases a shot: already leading 1-0 after he scored on an early power play, Sharks forward Joe Pavelski received a perfect pass from Matt Irwin and unleashed a blistering one-timer into the back of the net for his second goal of the night.  As this photo (taken from the TV broadcast) shows, my bald head at the left of the frame was in the perfect position to see the shot as it flew past the helpless goalie:

It was absolutely exhilarating to see a goal scored at the angle, with that velocity.  I figured the rest of the game couldn't possibly live up to that moment, and I was somewhat correct - surviving a late flurry from the Coyotes, the Sharks escaped with a 3-2 victory.  Time to head out for a late dinner, but not before Estell and I could grab a quick photo inside (it was his first time ever seeing a professional hockey game!):

My favorite dinner spot in the entire Phoenix area is the Four Peaks Brewery.  Recommended by a co-worker before a previous Arizona trip, it's a great place to wrap up an evening - the food is excellent, and the Tempe location is close enough to the Arizona State University campus to give it a good "college sports bar" vibe.  Being a brewery, there is a wide selection of good beers (be sure to order a sampler flight to try them all), as well as their famous concoction, the Oatmeal Stout Shake.  We stayed there for quite a while, before finally calling it a night.  But let me reiterate: if you're going to visit Phoenix, do yourself a favor and check this place out!


As if it wasn't already apparent, Phoenix is a great sports town.  The addition of the Coyotes in 1996 gave the city a team in all four major sports leagues, with nearby Arizona State University supplying top-level college competition.  Being the newest sport means that hockey is still making inroads into the region, though that should only increase when Arizona State's hockey team makes the jump to Division I next season (be sure to read Justin Emerson's terrific piece on how he inadvertently helped to make this happen). Arena's location in Glendale also allows for an easy opportunity to see an NFL game at University of Phoenix Stadium, located next door to the arena, while you're in town - we did this once, in 2011, where we made the lengthy drive from Los Angeles on a Saturday afternoon, saw a Coyotes game that night, an Arizona Cardinals game the next afternoon, and then drove back home after the football game.

As I mentioned earlier, I've been able to see several sporting events while visiting the Phoenix area, though I had never attended an Arizona Diamondbacks game at that point.  As luck would have it, their season had just begun and the Los Angeles Dodgers were in town for a weekend series.  This also gave us an opportunity to have lunch at one of the coolest places that I've ever eaten:

Yes, legendary rocker and avid sports fan Alice Cooper owns a terrific sports-themed restaurant in downtown Phoenix known as Cooperstown - conveniently located very close to both the US Airways Center, home to the NBA's Phoenix Suns, and the Diamondbacks' home park, Chase Field.  A longtime resident of the area (who we once saw at a Coyotes game), Cooper has expertly combined two of his loves to create a one-of-a-kind dining experience: the walls are lined with autographed memorabilia from notable names in the world of both sports and music, with several of the menu items also bearing some sort of clever name from one of these two passions (I previously ordered the "Megadeth Meatloaf").  I cannot imagine a better place for a pre-game meal, just for the ambiance alone.

From there, we made the short walk east to Chase Field - easily one of the most impressive stadiums I've ever seen.  Much like the Coyotes game the night before, there was a wonderful atmosphere surrounding the venue, with fans of both teams hanging out and enjoying a pre-game beverage or snack.

The inside of the stadium was immaculate - it may have been 16 years old (which makes it older than half of all Major League Baseball stadiums), but it still looks brand new.  There's a definite fan-friendly environment to be seen, with plenty of helpful employees and many unique artifacts on display ("Is that Mickey Mouse?").  It was quite hot on this particular day, so the retractable roof was closed, but that only provided a more intimate feel inside the massive facility.

"The Happiest Place in Arizona"?

Maybe it was the heat, the amount of travel we'd done recently, or the slow nature of the sport - but Chad and I grew tired about halfway through the game (he even started to doze off at one point).  We wanted to have enough time to catch our departing flight, so we left the game after the 6th inning.  Thankfully, the airport wasn't far, and Estell dropped us off on his way back to Prescott Valley.

I know that the Coyotes seem to endure ownership-related issues that lead to relocation rumors every summer, but until those come to fruition, I'll be sure to come back to see them again in the near future.


Seeing as it was the penultimate game of the Coyotes' season, the team store at Arena was completely sold out of various merchandise, including shot glasses.  Though I had already purchased an older glass with their original logo (to honor my previous visits to Glendale), I decided to add this sweet souvenir from the NHL's online store to my collection:


My most ambitious trip yet: four sporting events in four days, across two states in the Deep South...

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